Introduction

In California, you could face charges under California Vehicle Code section 23153: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23153.html) if you cause someone else to suffer injuries while you were allegedly driving under the influence – specifically, for DUI (Driving Under the Influence) Causing Injury.

You could also face Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated (California Penal Code section 191.5(b):  https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-191-5.html) if you cause someone else's death while driving under the influence.

Even though most DUI crimes are considered misdemeanors under California law, the charges automatically escalate to felonies when DUI accidents cause injury or death.

DUI Causing Injury Under California Law

According to Vehicle Code § 23153, the prosecutor must prove several elements of the crime to convict you of DUI causing injury. The elements include:

  • You drove the subject vehicle;
  • When you drove the vehicle, you were under the influence of an alcoholic beverage, a drug, or under the combined influence of alcohol and drugs;

See DUID -- Driving Under the Influence of a Drug (California Vehicle Code section 23152(f): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23152.html).

  • While driving the car under the influence, you also committed an unlawful act or failed to carry out a legal duty;
  • Your criminal act or failing to carry out a legal duty led to another person’s injury.

Under Vehicle Code § 23153, driving under the influence could refer to any of the following:

  • Driving under the influence — C. § 23152(a);


See Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) Number 2110 (“Driving Under the Influence -- Veh. Code § 23152(a), (f), (g)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2100/2110/

  • Driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher — C. § 23152(b);

See CALCRIM Number 2111 (“Driving with 0.08 Percent Blood Alcohol -- Veh. Code § 23152(b)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2100/2111/

  • Driving while intoxicated with drugs — C. § 23152(f).

See CALCRIM Number 2112 (“Driving while Addicted to a Drug -- Veh. Code § 23152(c)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2100/2112/

You could also be considered to be under the influence if, because of taking a drug or drinking alcohol, your physical abilities are so impaired that you cannot do the following:

  • Drive with caution of a sober person; or
  • Apply ordinary care.

Unlawful Act and Failure to Perform a Duty

For you to be guilty under V.C. § 23153, you need to have done the following:

  • Acted negligently or failed to use ordinary care under the circumstances; and
  • Violated some law or committed some illegal act such as running a red light.

Using “ordinary care” refers to you taking reasonable care to avoid foreseeable harm to another person. You could fail to exercise ordinary care if you do the following:

  • Fail to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation;
  • Do something that a reasonably prudent person would NOT do in the same situation.

Penalties For Violating Vehicle Code section 23153

It is a “Wobbler” (California Penal Code section 17(b): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-17.html) offense in California for anyone to violate Vehicle Code § 23153. This means the prosecutor could charge the offense as a misdemeanor or a felony.

The possible punishments for a misdemeanor DUI causing injury include:

  • Restitution to the injured parties;
  • Informal or summary probation for three to five years;
  • A license suspension for not more than three years;
  • A county jail term that does not exceed one-half year;
  • Completion of California DUI school;

See Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Program: https://www.dhcs.ca.gov/individuals/Pages/DUI.aspx

  • A fine not exceeding $5,000.

If the prosecutor charges you with felony DUI Causing Injury (California Vehicle Code section 23153: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23153.html), you could face the following penalties:

See Strike Offense (California Penal Code section 667(a)&(b): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-667.html; California Penal Code section 667.5(c) (“Violent Felonies”): https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=667.5.&lawCode=PEN; California Penal Code section 1192.7(c) (“Serious Felonies”): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-1192-7.html).

  • Completion of a court-approved DUI school;
  • A fine of up to $5,000.

However, for either of these charges, the court could also impose on you a probation term that does not exceed five years. Your BAC will have to be 0.00% during probation whenever you are behind the wheel. You are expected to refrain from committing any other crime during probation.

If you are arrested during probation on suspicion of a DUI causing injury, then you will automatically need to undergo a blood test or submit to a breathalyzer breath test. The police do not require ''probable cause'' to subject you to a DUI test while you’re on probation. Therefore, if you fail to undergo a chemical test, you will have automatically violated your probation terms. Upon violating the probation terms, the court could revoke the probation and recommend jail time.

See also Refusal to Submit to DUI Chemical Test (California Vehicle Code section 23612: https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2100/2130/).

You will also need to attend counseling if the court convicts you of a misdemeanor or a felony DUI causing injury. There is also a possibility that the judge will recommend you participate in several Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) (https://www.aa.org) meetings. If your BAC was less than 0.20%, you could be required to complete a drunk driving program that does not exceed 30 hours for three months.

If your BAC exceeded 0.20%, you could be required to complete a drunk driving program that does not exceed 60 hours over nine months. It is mandatory you complete these educational requirements; if you fail to do so, your conduct will be a violation of your probation.

You could face enhanced punishment for a DUI-causing-injury conviction if another person suffers severe injuries.

See, e.g., Inflicting Great Bodily Injury (GBI) (California Penal Code section 12022.7: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-12022-7.html).

The penalties enhancements include:

  • An addition of one point to your driving record in the case of any serious injuries;
  • An additional three to six years’ prison term for any victim who suffered a serious bodily injury;
  • An additional one-year incarceration term for every victim who suffered any injury, including minor ones.

See also CALCRIM Number 2100 (“Driving a Vehicle or Operating a Vessel Under the Influence Causing Injury -- Veh. Code § 23153(a), (f), (g)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2100/2100/

CALCRIM Number 2101 (“Driving with 0.08 Percent Blood Alcohol Causing Injury -- Veh. Code § 23153(b): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2100/2101/

CALCRIM Number 2102 (“Driving with 0.04 Percent Blood Alcohol Causing Injury with a Passenger for Hire -- Veh. Code § 23153(e)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2100/2102/

If you face any of the above enhancements, your case is a felony. The enhanced penalties often run consecutively to the sentencing for the underlying offense. For example, the court could impose on you a four-year jail term for felony DUI causing injury plus a three-year enhancement for a victim who sustained severe injuries and a one-year sentence enhancement for a victim who sustained minor injuries. Therefore, your total incarceration term would be eight years. Typically, any jail term exceeding one year in California is served in state prison and not in the county jail.

Habitual Traffic Offender (HTO) status could also apply to you if you have several DUI charges. You will not be allowed to drive a vehicle under any circumstances for a court-approved period.

See https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/file/an-evaluation-of-the-california-habitual-traffic-offender-law/

If you are found driving a car before the designated period elapses, you could face a jail term that does not exceed 180 days in county jail.

Defenses to DUI Causing Injury Charges

There are several defenses that your attorney could use to fight your charges, depending on the facts of your case and your prior criminal record. The defenses include:

The Police Did Not Read You Your Miranda Rights

For any arrest, whether you have allegedly committed a severe or minor crime, the police officer arresting you must read the Miranda warning, which advises you of your inalienable right to avoid self-incrimination. If the police fail to read the Miranda warning to you, the court considers it a violation of your Fifth Amendment rights and could automatically render your arrest null and void.

See https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/miranda_warning (“Miranda Warning”).

You Were Not Behind the Wheel When the Accident Happened

You could allege that you were not driving the vehicle when the accident occurred.

Invocation of the ‘’Emergency Doctrine’’

If your conduct was imposed on you by an unexpected, imminent, or sudden emergency, such as a medical emergency, then you could be acquitted of DUI causing injury charges.

See https://www.findlaw.com/dui/cases/defenses-to-drunk-driving.html (“Defenses to Drunk Driving”).

There Were No Injuries

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office (DA’s Office) (https://da.lacounty.gov) must provide sufficient evidence that someone else suffered an injury to charge you with DUI causing injury. However, even if you prove that no one sustained injuries because of your actions, you could still be criminally liable for a simple DUI (Driving Under the Influence) (California Vehicle Code section 23152: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23152.html).

No Probable Cause

You could allege that the arresting police officer had no valid reason for suspecting you of DUI.

See Motion to Suppress Evidence (California Penal Code section 1538.5: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-1538-5.html).

The Initial Traffic Stop was Illegal

If the traffic police did not have a “reasonable suspicion'' to stop you, then the traffic stop could be considered illegal. In this situation, your attorney could have any evidence gleaned from the traffic police deemed unacceptable in court.

See Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-4/

Determining which of these defenses is suitable will depend on your charges. Your legal team will scrutinize the facts of your case, including eyewitness accounts and the officer’s testimony. An in-depth analysis of your arrest report and any circumstantial or physical evidence will also be conducted.

When Your DUI Causes Another Person’s Death

DUI causing the death of another person attracts hefty penalties. The case becomes more complicated if your DUI causes someone else's death in California. You could face any of the following charges:

  • DUI murder

See Second-Degree Murder (California Penal Code section 192(a)&(b): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html; California Penal Code section 187: (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html)

See also "
Watson Murder" (California Penal Code section 187: (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html)

People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290 at: https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ca-court-of-appeal/1838207.html

Punishment for Second-Degree Murder (15 years to life with possible parole) (California Penal Code section 190.05(a): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-190-05.html)

DUI Murder

DUI murder is the most severe DUI conviction you could face. The California at California Penal Code section 187 (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html) outlines the crime of DUI murder, also known as Watson DUI murder. This crime entails that you operated a vehicle with a conscious disregard for human life. It also means that you allegedly drove while drunk despite knowing you might take someone else's life while driving under the influence.

The prosecutor cannot charge you with DUI murder if you were not formally (i.e., in court) made aware of the dangers of drunk driving – this is known as a “Watson advisement”. This is why you can only face DUI murder charges if you have a previous DUI conviction on your record.

See, e.g., Second DUI (Driving Under the Influence) (California Vehicle Code section 23540: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23540.html).

In California, all DUI offenders are required to sign an acknowledgment that they know that drunk driving can cause death. In this case, if you cause another DUI accident and kill another person in the future, the prosecutor can allege that you were aware of what you were doing.

If the court finds you guilty of DUI murder, you could face:

  • A minimum of 15 years in prison and possibly life imprisonment; and
  • A fine of up to $10,000.

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

This crime is outlined under California P.C. § 191.5(a).

See also CALCRIM Number 590 (“Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated -- Pen. Code § 191.5(a)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/590/

Gross vehicular manslaughter differs from regular Vehicular Manslaughter (California Penal Code section 191.5(c):  https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-191-5.html;  California Penal Code section 192(c): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html./ in the following ways:

  • The prosecutor must provide sufficient evidence that you acted with “gross” negligence;
  • Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is charged as a felony.

Unlike ordinary negligence, ''gross'' negligence is much more careless. It implies that the offender acted in a completely reckless manner, which any sober person would know is life-threatening. For example, driving into oncoming traffic or speeding through stop lights would be gross negligence.

Often, gross vehicular manslaughter sentences are more severe than regular vehicular manslaughter. Many regular vehicular manslaughter cases are charged as misdemeanors.

See CALCRIM Number 593 (“Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter -- Pen. Code § 192(c)(2)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/593/

This assumes you did not mean to harm anyone, you were not far over the legal limit, or it was your first DUI offense. On the other hand, gross vehicular manslaughter attracts more severe penalties since it is charged as a felony. You could face:

  • Imprisonment of 4, 6, or 10 years;
  • A fine of up to $10,000.

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

This crime is explained under California Pen. Code § 191.5(b).

See also CALCRIM Number 591 (“Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated - Ordinary Negligence -- Pen. Code § 191.5(b)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/591/

The prosecutor must prove the following elements to charge you with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated:

  • You drove under the influence;
  • You violated some other law such as speeding in addition to DUI;

See also, e.g., Reckless Driving (California Vehicle Code section 23103: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23103.html)

Reckless Driving Causing Injury (California Vehicle Code section 23104: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23104.html)

  • You acted with negligence; and
  • Your negligence directly lead to another person’s death.

Not every accident involving drunk driving and death meets the above criteria. For example, you could have had some drinks at a bar and drove home while observing all other traffic rules. Then, while on the way home, a pedestrian ran across the road in front of you without warning, and you hit him/her, and he/she died later from the injuries.

In this case, your actions did not amount to vehicular manslaughter because you did not violate any law other than DUI law. Even if you violated another law, it still can’t amount to vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated unless you exercised negligence. Negligence implies that you acted in a way a reasonable person would not, thus posing foreseeable (i.e., predictable) harm to another person.

You could also have driven while drunk, overtaken another vehicle illegally, and hit another person. This is tragic, but sober motorists also overtake illegally all the time in California. If the road was clear when you began overtaking, you could claim that you were not negligent. Your DUI defense attorney can allege that even if you drove while drunk and killed someone, you were not negligent in a manner that directly caused the death of another person. This could reduce your charges from DUI manslaughter to a regular DUI charge.

Related Offenses

Several offenses are closely related to DUI causing injury or death. The related crimes include:

Felony Hit and Run that Causes Injury or Death (California Vehicle Code section 20001: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-20001.html)

The hit-and-run crime is charged as a felony because of the injury the victim sustains. The offense could be a misdemeanor if it is only property that was damaged.

If the prosecutor accuses you of a hit-and-run that causes injury or death, he/she must prove the following elements:

  • While driving, you were involved in a car accident;
  • The accident caused injury or death to another person other than yourself.

It is a “Wobbler” (California Penal Code section 17(b): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-17.html) offense in California for any motorist to violate V.C. § 20001. You could face misdemeanor or felony charges. Misdemeanor charges could lead to a jail term of one year in county jail. Felony charges could lead to a prison term of two, three, or four years.

Child Endangerment (California Penal Code section 273a: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-273a.html)

Child endangerment is defined under P.C. § 273a as willfully exposing a person under 18 years of age to unjustifiable danger, pain, or suffering. The following are the elements the prosecutor must prove to charge you with child endangerment:

  • You willfully inflicted an unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on a child;
  • You intentionally caused or permitted a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.

You could face varying penalties for child endangerment. If you did not create a risk of great bodily harm or death, you could face a jail term of 6 months in county jail (misdemeanor). If you created a risk of great bodily harm or death, you could face a jail term of 2, 4, or 6 years in state prison (felony).